Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Ghetto Defendant

I wrote a brief post on the Duke University lacrosse players' rape case in mid-January. In that post, I attempted to highlight the prevalence of certain attitudes toward longstanding principles and protections related to our criminal justice system.
The fault lies with the rush to judgment - or better yet, pre-judgment. For too many, the accusations became synonymous with the crimes themselves. Why wait for a trial when the facts were so damning: these were white, privileged, athletes at an elite private university partying it up in a frat house with alcohol and strippers. Nuff said, right? Further, as a result of the shameful history of persecuting and vilifying rape victims in this country (and every other country for that matter), and dismissing their accusations as spurious, some on the Left (properly concerned with these issues), have developed a trigger happy reaction to such accusations. There has been an overcompensation of sorts. [...]

Interestingly, there is an inverse relationship between Right and Left with respect to the treatment and classification of those accused of terrorism - both foreign citizens detained at Gitmo, and US citizens like Jose Padilla who have been brutalized by a detention policy run amok. The roles are reversed.

For too many on the Right side of the spectrum, the accusations become synonymous with the crimes themselves. Why wait for a trial when the facts are so damning: these are Muslim men, picked up in Afghanistan and other parts of the globe where terrorists are known to reside and they have been accused by the US government of dangerous affiliations at a time of heightened tensions. Further, as a result of the psychic impact of 9/11, and the raw fear of future terrorist attacks, some on the Right (properly concerned with these issues), have developed a trigger happy reaction to such accusations. There has been an overcompensation of sorts.
Radley Balko, for his part, uses the story of the Duke case to remind us of some of the deeper flaws in our criminal justice system. There is, unfortunately, an operable dynamic that facilitates - or at least doesn't do enough to sufficiently safeguard against - prosecutor misconduct. For too many defendants lacking the resources to mount effective challenges to prosecutions, the deck is stacked hopelessly against them despite the supposed presumption of innocence. Balko illustrates his point with the case of James Giles:
Giles is a Texas man who served 10 years in prison, as well as an additional 14 years on probation and as a registered sex offender, for a rape committed in 1982.

Last week--the same week the Duke lacrosse team was exonerated--Giles too was exonerated, thanks to DNA evidence.

I'm guessing not many of you have heard of Giles. And I'm guessing just about all of you have heard of Reade Seligmann, David Evans, and Collin Finnerty.

This isn't to diminish what happened to the Duke players. It's to demonstrate the selective outrage on display from some of their defenders. The Duke guys didn't do a day of hard time. Giles did 10 years. The Duke guys were wrongfully labeled rapists for a little more than a year. Giles, for 24 years.

Some bloggers took umbrage at the implications of Balko's post - that there was selectivity in the outrage displayed with respect to each case, possibly motivated by political and racial attitudes. I don't think all of those objections were unwarranted. So it was good to see Balko respond with important clarifications:

I'm not saying anyone who didn't write about Giles is wrong or racist or bigoted. Hell, I didn't write about it until this weekend. I brought it up to point out the contrast between the two cases, and the contrast in the coverage of them, in the hopes of nudging conservatives outraged by the Duke case to see it as more than vindicating their feelings about feminists, liberal academics, the media, and civil rights groups, and look at it for what it is: a glaring illustration of the inadequacies of the criminal justice system.

That is, get over the identity politics and cult of victimhood. Yeah, the Duke guys got screwed. But they were exonerated. There are lots more innocent people who need to be exonerated, people who have been in prison a long time, and who don't have the benefit of high-priced lawyers or media attention or the powerful pundit advocates the Duke players had.

Unfortunately, just as the left did with the Imus case, conservatives seemed to have drawn all the wrong lessons from Duke. See Jack Dunphy, Michelle Malkin, and Heather McDonald, all of whom have decided to use the Duke case to lament how the media doesn't do enough to tell us about how black people are inherently more criminal and dangerous than white people.[...]

All of this is why I find the right's outrage over the Duke case to be so grating. And the fact that so many conservatives seem to have walked away from the case thinking the lesson is not that the criminal justice system on the whole needs more accountability, transparency, and balance, but rather that we aren't doing enough to vilify black people, and that rich white people are the real victims here, well, that's just plain stupid. And wrong. And infuriating.
Balko really gets to the heart of the matter, and properly identifies the salient lesson.

I'll say this: I found it rather commendable that one of the accused Duke players, Reade Seligmann (they might have all made this point but I saw Seligmann for sure), took the time to make exactly that point - on more than one occasion. Seligmann stated that this experience opened his eyes to a world of injustice that he had previously been unfamiliar with. This experience has shown him how easy it is to fall through the cracks of the justice system. That there are likely thousands of innocent people convicted of crimes who don't have talented, high priced lawyers at their disposal to prevent the unthinkable parade of travesties.

Would that such consciousness spread. That would certainly be one way to take this otherwise ugly story and turn it to good.

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